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Three Things to Know: Ja Morant goes right at James Harden, wins the night

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Ja Morant goes right at James Harden, wins the night. For much of Tuesday night, Ja Morant was treating James Harden like the Beard has treated so many helpless big men over the past few years: When Harden got switched onto Morant the rookie would step back, call for a clear out, then embarrass the defender who could not keep up with him.

It was like that all night, and Morant was not afraid to call out Harden more than once for his defense.

“The doubters said I couldn’t shoot, I’m proving them wrong,” Morant said in his walk-off interview after his 26-point, eight assist night that sparked Memphis to a 121-110 win over the Rockets.

If Harden was one of those doubters, he is no longer.

Morant is running away with the Rookie of the Year award that his former AAU teammate in South Carolina Zion Williamson was expected to run away with. Morant is out of Zion’s shadow and has become must-watch television in his own right every time he steps on the court with his amazing passing and fluid athleticism.

“I think the most impressive thing with him is he just gets better, steadily. Game after game, month after month…” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said recently of his young star. The assist totals, his paint finishing, but also now he’s starting to shoot the three-ball better. As a three-point shooter, he’s shooting with more confidence, he’s getting back defensively. He’s a kid who gets better every single day.”

Harden still had 41 on the night but on 13-of-37 shooting. Russell Westbrook sat out for rest (he has done that on half of back-to-backs all season, and the Rockets host Portland tonight).

2) The Utah Jazz winning streak reaches 10 with a win in Brooklyn. Last summer, the Jazz made adding offense the priority — no more “great defense and hope Donovan Mitchell is enough” in the playoffs, the Jazz wanted more guys who could go get buckets.

Utah is on a 10-game winning streak — after knocking off the Nets in Brooklyn Tuesday night 118-107 — and it’s the offense that is driving the streak. In its last 10 games, the Jazz have an offensive rating of 122, best in the NBA over that stretch. The defense has been just average over that same stretch (and fallen to eighth in the league for the season), but it hasn’t mattered because the Jazz offense is on a roll. Utah has won 15-of-16 because of that improved offense.

Joe Ingles has thrived once forced back into a starter’s role (because Mike Conley is out with a hamstring issue), and he led the Jazz with 27 points on Tuesday. Bojan Bogdanovic has been impressive of late, having found a comfort level within the offense. Mitchell remains Utah’s go-to scorer and has averaged 21.4 points per game over the last 10.

Before anyone wants to argue “Utah can hang with the Lakers/Clippers,” there are caveats. Only one of those last 10 wins came against a team with a winning record (the Clippers). Utah’s defense needs to get back to locking teams down again. Finally, Mike Conley is going to return, and the Jazz need to find a way to integrate him into the offense. Come the playoffs — and especially the second round and beyond — teams are going to take away the pet plays and easy buckets the Jazz get from their system and it’s going to come down to individual shot creators. Mitchell can do that, but he needs help (as last year’s playoffs showed). Bogdanovic can pitch in, but that will be why Utah needs Conley and his pick-and-roll skills.

For now though, the Jazz have won 10 in a row and look like a potential threat in the West. Which is what the Utah front office wanted when it made all those summer moves.

3) Kawhi Leonard dominates, scores 43 points in fewer than 30 minutes on the court. When this Kawhi Leonard shows up, there’s nothing anyone can do — especially anyone on this Cavaliers roster.

Leonard got inside and shot 5-of-7 in the paint, hit 6-of-10 from three, dominated on defense, and put up 43 points in 28:44 of court time. Check out his shot chart.

Or, just watch the ridiculous highlights.

Consider this just a mid-season reminder that Leonard can take over a game as well as anyone in the league right now. When this Leonard shows up in the playoffs — with Paul George next to him — the Clippers become a very difficult team to beat.

BONUS THING TO KNOW: Trae Young can hit from anywhere (and wants your All-Star vote).

Suns keep winning, T.J. Warren keeps scoring, Nuggets outlast Jazz in 2OT

Suns star Devin Booker vs. Heat
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The Suns are unbeatable. T.J Warren is unstoppable. And the NBA is unapologetically fun.

Just another day in the NBA bubble.

Phoenix – already the NBA’s only undefeated team at Disney World – moved to 5-0 in seeding games with a 119-112 win over the Heat.

The Suns are still a half game outside play-in position with a tougher closing stretch than the ninth-place Trail Blazers.* But Phoenix sure is making the race interesting, and Portland isn’t closing the door.

*Both teams still play the 76ers and Mavericks. The Suns also play the Thunder. The Trail Blazers’ last seeding game is against the Nets.

Whether or not they make the playoffs, the Suns should absolutely be encouraged by this stretch. Unlike an early-season surge, when Aron Baynes and Ricky Rubio carried big loads, Phoenix’s young players are leading the charge now. Devin Booker scored 35 points tonight. Jevon Carter added 20 points on 6-of-8 3-point shooting off the bench. Deandre Ayton (18 points and 12 rebounds) continues to impress. Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson have steadily contributed at forward.

Expectations are rising for next season.

First, the Suns aren’t ready for this season to end soon.

All the best bubble stories were in Phoenix last season.

Pacers forward T.J. Warren – whom the Suns dumped with a draft-pick sweetener last summer – continued his scoring binge with 39 points in a 116-111 win over the Pacers.

Warren could always get buckets. But he has been on another level lately.

The Nuggets (somewhat safely in third place) and Jazz (who might prefer to finish sixth) had few obvious reasons to care about beating each other.

But then the game got going, and both teams’ competitive juices took over.

Donovan Mitchell drove for a layup to force overtime. Nikola Jokic converted inside to force double overtime. Finally, Jamal Murray – who scored 23 points in his first game of the resumption – put Denver up for good with a jumper then 3-pointer in a 134-132 victory.

Bubble games have featured such great energy and competitiveness.

Damian Lillard to Paul George on Instagram: ‘keep switching teams … running from the grind’

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Damian Lillard missed a pair of clutch free throws in the Trail Blazers’ loss to the Clippers today. Patrick Beverley and Paul George let Lillard hear about it. Lillard boasted in his post-game interview about his series-winning shots over Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and George’s Thunder in 2019 (which literally came over George).

Now, the conflict has spilled onto Instagram.

Bleacher Report:

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Dame, PG and Pat Bev went at it in our comments 👀

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George:

And you getting sent home this year 🤣 respect✊

Beverley:

Cancun on 3😂😂😂

Lillard:

keep switching teams … running from the grind . You boys is chumps

George:

@damianlillard respect that too in my stint with my first team I had more success… Dame time running out g

George did lead the Pacers to Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals, losing to the eventual-champion Heat. Indiana also pushed Miami to Game 6 in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals. George doesn’t get enough credit for those achievements.

Though Lillard’s Trail Blazers peaked in the 2019 Western Conference finals, they got swept by the team that lost in the NBA Finals.

But George forced his way out of Indiana despite that being the only place he could earn a super-max contract. He also re-signed with the Thunder, announcing his plan at a big party thrown by Russell Westbrook, then requested a trade to join Kawhi Leonard on the Clippers only a year later.

Lillard just has different sensibilities. He said he’d stick with the Trail Blazers rather than join a super team. Lillard even talked disparagingly about players who get pressured into bypassing super-max contracts in order to be viewed as a winner elsewhere.

So, this clash makes sense.

Maybe it got too personal for George, who has overcome major injury and returned even better. He surely doesn’t want to be called a chump at this point in his career.

But I disagree with George’s championships-only argument. There is plenty of room for major achievements that fall short of a title – like the Pacers’ deep playoff runs George cited. And Lillard’s series-winning shot last year. George was the casualty on that play. There’s no way around it, and it’s likely still a sore spot. That was a high-profile moment that supersedes missed free throws in a seeding game.

Lillard and George can go back-and-forth about their accomplishments. Both have done plenty in this league. Their individual routes to success show their contrasting values. Neither are wrong. They’re just different.

That’s perfectly fine and – when it leads to spats like this – fun.

Damian Lillard misses clutch FTs, Trail Blazers blow key game against Clippers backups

Damian Lillard vs. Clippers
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The Clippers – maybe wanting to give the Lakers a tougher first-round matchup – showed their lack of interest in beating the Trail Blazers today by sitting Kawhi Leonard. Down five with two minutes left, the Clippers really waved the white flag by closing with a lineup of:

But that group ended the game on a 12-2 run to hand Portland a devastating 122-117 loss.

The Trail Blazers are now just half a game up for ninth in the Western Conference. This further opens the door for the Spurs, Pelicans, Suns and even Kings to make a play-in (and gives the Grizzlies more breathing room for advancing to that stage).

After McGruder hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 26 seconds left, Damian Lillard drew a pair of free throws with Portland down one. Lillard is arguably the NBA’s most clutch player, and he had made 89% of his free throws this season. But he missed both – to the particular delight of injured Clippers guard Patrick Beverley:

Beverley and Lillard have a longstanding personal rivalry. The Clippers also have Paul George.

After the game, Lillard – who hit a series-winning shot against Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and another series-winning shot over George, who was with the Thunder, last year – didn’t mince words.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Lillard:

Asking me about Patrick Beverley, who – I sent him before at the end of a game. Paul George just got sent home by me last year in the playoffs. So, they know. The reason they’re reacting like that is because of what they expect from me, which is a sign of respect, and it just shows what I’ve done at a high clip more times than not. So, I’m not offended by it. If anything, it should just tell you how much it hurt them to go through what I put them through in those situations previously.

I love Lillard’s ability to remain calm and in control. Kudos for him for finding a way to boast after missing a pair of free throws that effectively cost his team a big game. Really. Lillard’s emotional maturity is an asset.

Expect the Trail Blazers to follow his lead and not further unravel. They can and probably should still be favored to reach the play-in.

But their margin for error definitely just shrunk.

76ers star Ben Simmons leaving bubble for surgery

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Ben Simmons injured his knee, and the 76ers didn’t hide their concerns.

This is serious.

Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Obviously, the surgery itself is a setback. If Simmons becomes healthy enough to return before Philadelphia gets eliminated, he could be required to quarantine in his hotel room – which would limit rehab and training.

And of course it will be difficult for Philadelphia to advance deep into the playoffs without Simmons.

There are even graver concerns beyond this season. Will Simmons now be more susceptible to future injuries? This could derail a budding championship contender with Joel Embiid and Simmons.

Embiid already has long-term health concerns. It was always uncertain how long Philadelphia’s window would remain open despite Embiid and Simmons being so young.

Even next season could be perilous. How long will Simmons take to recover? Next season could be right around the corner (or not). If the 76ers’ outlook looks worse – especially amid the economic downturn caused by coronavirus – they could no longer follow through on their plan to pay the luxury tax. Slashing payroll could further reduce the roster’s effectiveness.

Already, expectations shrink this season without Simmons. Philadelphia appears increasingly likely to land the No. 6 seed and a tough first-round series against the Celtics (rather than a spot in the 4-5 series against the Heat or Pacers).

Will these difficult circumstances give 76ers coach Brett Brown more leeway to keep his job? Or do they just make it more likely the 76ers lose early in the playoffs and fire him?

He has plenty of options for proceeding without Simmons. Simmons was a multi-positional star who spent most of the season at point guard but had been playing power forward in the bubble.

Without Simmons, Al Horford moved back into the starting lineup, and Mike Scott – who had been out with a knee injury – joined the rotation. Glenn Robinson III could also get an expanded role once he’s healthy.

Many sans-Simmons lineups could give Philadelphia more spacing around Embiid, which makes the star center even more dangerous.

But this loss of talent can’t be offset and significantly lowers the 76ers’ ceiling this season and maybe reduces their odds of reaching their ceiling in future seasons.